He manages like somebody carrying a boxthat is too heavy, first with his armsunderneath. When their strength gives out,he moves the hands forward, hooking themon the corners, pulling the weight againsthis chest. He moves his thumbs slightlywhen the fingers begin to tire, and it makesdifferent muscles take over. Afterward,he carries it on his shoulder, until the blooddrains out of the arm that is stretched upto steady the box and the arm goes numb. But nowthe man can hold underneath again, so thathe can go on without ever putting the box down.– “Michiko Dead” by Jack Gilbert
He’d been dead for a few months, but I already knew what had to happen. After I watched cancer erode my father’s body, I decided that there needed to be more of me. I suddenly needed to pack on as much muscle as possible. Cancer might have eaten through my father’s wiry frame in six months, but I would not be taken so easily.
I did not explain to the gym sales-person, or my therapist, or my wife, that I was full of rage and needed somewhere to put it. Neither did I reveal my desperate plan to be a physically insurmountable problem for cancer cells. I was sure that if I said this to anyone they would explain how cancer didn’t exactly work that way. Because, for me, it had to work that way; something had to work. Something had to ensure that yellow, withered body in the hospice bed wouldn’t be mine twenty years hence.
The gym I joined was newly built, surprisingly inexpensive, and hideously decorated in yellow and red. You could watch movies on a massive screen while you walked on a treadmill in the dark. There were machines with levers and pulleys that gleamed and clinked; padded benches with silver bars wielded by veiny-muscled dudes and spandexed women.
I was 29 years old; months away from my 30th birthday. I had not lifted a weight in at least seven years, and before that I had only worked out in my parent’s basement using sand-filled plastic dumbbells inherited from an uncle. Shirtless, I looked like E.T.
I was petrified of the gym. Several times I would have small panic attacks in the parking lot. Most of those attacks began with a simple fear: I might drop a weight on myself; I looked clearly out of place; I had no idea how any of these machines work and was too afraid to ask for help. I was a ball of nerves, avoiding the glances of the clearly experienced gym-goers and hoping to not make a fool of myself. But these were the easy fears, the ones I could articulate in my car on a cool, bare Saturday morning. It was easier to worry these bones than it was to remember that I was really here because I was desperately afraid to die.
Eventually, you realize nobody is looking at you. Nobody really cares whether your form is correct or whether you look like you belong or what. Once I saw that most people were just there to worry about themselves, it got easier. I also eventually noticed just how many of the people in the gym were not supremely fit people.
There were a lot of older people. Septuagenarians looking to eek a few more years from their spindly frames. And teenagers. So many teenagers in local high school athletics shirts, all of them lean and happy and ready to live for a hundred more years.
And this range was liberating. While I sometimes felt a pang of guilt over some of the truly aged folks struggling to even sit (because clearly their desperation to keep going was more imminent than my own), and other times felt frustrated that these kids didn’t know how good they had it, it was mostly inspiring. All of us were in this place for one reason or another.
And while I didn’t exactly see anyone else on an elliptical welling up with tears while they struggled to not think about how badly they missed their father and how goddamn furious they were that he was gone and would never meet his (then potential) grandchild and son of a bitch this is unfair and so on and so forth, there did not seem a reason to believe that some of these people were, in fact, here for similar reasons.
The gym, that stereotypical place of vapidity and meatballers, became something like holy for me. The fact is, no matter what excuses existed, everyone there was there. They got in the door and were working on themselves. As someone who has cried in a gym parking lot, I assure you this is miraculous. The heavy woman who endures thirty minutes on the treadmill. The graying man with the Marines tattoo dripping on the recumbent bike. The woman yoga stretching in a corner while still wearing her United States Postal Service gear. All of them there for one essential thing: relief.
I know there is some cosmic (or comic) irony in my attempt to lift heavy physical weights in order to unburden myself of an existential weight. It is kind of masochistic logic.
But, the question that brought me here, to writing this, is: has the weight been lifted? For how long does one need to go and lift weights or jog or ride a stationary bike or get Vedic before they transcend fear and grief?
I was hoping that by writing this I would have a number. I hoped that I would get near this point in the essay and I could say with certainty that after six years of committed gym membership and equally committed grieving I was done with both; that the maximum amount of weights had been lifted; that I had leveled up and graduated and was now free from those pains.
Of course that’s not the case.
Cancer is not afraid of the number of plates you can load on a bar and lift. Deadlifting has nothing to do with raising the dead. I’m just as scared of dying today as I was in 2010. Maybe more so, actually.
But today my desire to be and do more is greater than my fear of death. I’ve come to see that joining a gym was not the desperate act of pseudo-survival it could have been. The desire to live, to be at your fullest life, defined by whatever metric you’ve decided to utilize to achieve that: that is a true act of survival. The continual push into new territory, seeking new approaches of doing and understanding whatever that thing is–that is the lesson for me. You lift the weight, and you put it back down. And you consider how you did it and how you can do it easier, faster, better the next time. And the next time maybe the weight is easier to move, or maybe it feels heavier. But what you did not do is crumble under it; you were not crushed.
I remember people commending my father when he was first diagnosed: “He’s a fighter,” they’d say. “He’s a tough son of a bitch.” And those things were true about him, and I agree that if cancer were a man my father would have whooped that ass. But that’s not how it went. It went quickly and traumatically. It often does. Death is worst for the survivors. We are the ones who really have the longest fight. So long as we have the memories of whom we love, we are battling the weight. What we do as survivors is simple: we lift the weight. And when it is too much, we put it back down. And when we are ready, we lift it back up again. And on. And on. And on.